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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, June 24th, 2003


As of This Writing: The Essential Essays, 1968-2002

by Clive James

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

James is among the very small number of great critics writing today — a group that includes Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, John Updike, Gore Vidal, and Christopher Hitchens. All write with verve and recklessness, which they combine with extraordinary erudition. All are imbued with what James calls "the spirit of Grub Street" — all, that is, write in "the tradition of supplying a supplement and a corrective to ... the dust contractors of the universities." The authors and subjects he examines in this collection of "essays" — really review essays — range from Nabokov to Judith Krantz, from Richard Nixon's memoirs to the Final Solution; from Stevie Smith to Peter Bogdanovich, from Philip Larkin to Marilyn Monroe. (Among and within his pieces James artfully juxtaposes the high and the low — a tendency he shares with Ackroyd. Both men have been regular television critics.) He is penetrating on all these (especially Larkin), but I find him most astute and heartfelt in his assessments of his fellow literary journalists.

His celebrated 1972 essay on Edmund Wilson remains the most trenchant appreciation of both the critic's writing ("Wilson's style adopted the Mencken-Nathan toughness but eschewed the belligerence — throwing no punches, it simply put its points and waited for intelligent men to agree") and his peculiar point of view as a "patrician individualist," revolted by the fact that "the Republic he loved began to be overwhelmed by the Democracy he had never been sure about." He hits the mark in his evaluation of Vidal, whom he rightly regards as Wilson's "natural heir," who "just knows a lot, possesses an unusual amount of common sense and writes scrupulously lucid prose" — but whose critical honesty is hobbled by his "thirst for glamour." And James is equally incisive on Susan Sontag, who, he writes, "conspicuously lacks the one quality every critic must have and an excellent critic must have in abundance: the capacity not to be carried away by a big idea."

His piece on Orwell, however (who not only made political writing an art but, James correctly avers, "is the first person to read on Swift, on Dickens, and on Gissing"), is the best here, and among the best considerations of that author ever written. Sure, James praises Orwell's style and its "irresistible force of assertion," but far more valuably, he takes apart Orwell's sentences to show us how he created conversational prose like a windowpane. And James succinctly tells us why to read Orwell, why to be wary of him, and why to revere him: "Not even Orwell could resist a resonant statement that fudged the facts — a clarity that is really an opacity. Yes, Orwell did write like an angel, and that's the very reason we have to watch him like a hawk. Luckily for us, he was pretty good at watching himself. He was blessed with a way of putting things that made everything he said seem so, but that was only a gift. His intellectual honesty was a virtue."

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